April Schroeder has homeschooled all of her eight children, who range in age from a junior in college to a pre-kindergarten student.
She had thought about enrolling them in a Catholic school, but it wasn’t until her pastor, Father Stephen Gideon of St. John Vianney Church in Gallatin, approached her and her husband Rob last year to ask them to consider applying for the Welcome Grants offered by the Diocese of Nashville that she decided to give it a try for her five youngest children.
“I went through the motions of applying,” Schroeder said. She thought, “We’ll give it one year and see how it goes.
“It’s the best thing I ever did,” Schroeder said.
She ticked off the positive features of St. John Vianney School where her children are enrolled in the pre-kindergarten, first grade, third grade, fourth grade and seventh grades classes: the small class sizes, the quality of the teachers, the school’s family atmosphere, the fact the Catholic faith is taught daily and students attend Mass once a week.
The academics at St. John Vianney have been challenging, Schroeder said, “but the payoff is great.” She had some worries about how her children would do academically after transitioning into a school environment for the first time. “Not only have they kept up, they’ve done phenomenal.”
“I can’t say enough good things about the school,” Schroeder said.
As the 19 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Nashville prepare to highlight their successes and excellence during Catholic Schools Week from Sunday, Jan. 26, through Saturday Feb. 1, the Schroeder family’s experience is a reaffirmation of the work of administrators, teachers, parents and students.
“You’ve got dedicated professionals that teach with heart. I think that makes a big difference,” said Sherry Woodman, who started teaching at Christ the King School in Nashville in 1993 and is in her eighth year as the school’s principal. “You have families there because they want to be part of your community. They have an investment in their child being in that school and doing well.
“So when you have ownership by the parents, the teachers, the students, it’s a team effort,” Woodman said. “All of that works to the student’s benefit.”
The ingredients that make Catholic schools unique and a success start with their mission, said Mike Deely, headmaster at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville.
“Whatever we do at our school … our goal is to teach students to use their talents. To understand they have a vocation in life from God … that your gifts are meant to serve not only yourself but the world,” he said.
Catholic education “is designed to tie everything into that purpose,” Deely added. Catholic schools provide a complete education, body, mind and soul. “That is how Catholic schools are historically known. People get that. That’s what we’re good at.”
The foundation of excellence of Catholic schools in the diocese rests in the classroom. Students consistently perform well by many measures, including their results on standardized tests.
Students in the elementary schools in the diocese take the Iowa Assessments every year from kindergarten through eighth grade.
The Iowa Assessments, used by public and private schools across the country, are a nationally normed test measuring a student’s aptitude across several subject areas and comparing their progress at each grade level to that of students across the country.
“It’s really measuring what students are capable of doing,” said Rebecca Hammel, superintendent of schools for the diocese.
“The Iowas are scientifically researched standards on what students should know at each grade level,” Hammel said. “They’re tried and true.”
In the latest results for diocesan schools on the Iowa Assessments, 73 percent of third graders scored at proficient or advanced levels. That number jumped to the 90s for each succeeding grade capped off by 94 percent of eighth graders at a proficient (67 percent) or advanced (27 percent) levels.
“That’s high,” Hammel said of the number of eighth graders scoring proficient or advanced in reading. The results for third graders represents the typical gaps that we see in younger grades as students come to school with varying levels of rediness. Fortunately we then begin to close those gaps and students transition from learning to read to reading to learn, Hammel explained. “But to see that high of an increase in the eighth grade, that’s substantial.”
The numbers were similar for the math scores. The number of students scoring proficient or advanced were: 80 percent in the third grade; 91 percent in the fourth grade; 93 percent in the fifth grade; 86 percent in the sixth grade; 93 percent in the seventh grade; and 87 percent in the eighth.
It’s not unusual to see students who struggle in their middle school years to disengage from the educational process, Hammel said. But that’s not what educators see among middle school students in the diocese’s Catholic schools, she said.
“Our scores are very strong,” Hammel said, “and I would credit that to our principals and teachers who are very attentive to the needs of each student.”
“Nobody comes to the school because of the headmaster or principal or president,” Deely said. “They come because of the experience other kids have had in the classroom.”
The quality of a student’s teachers and coaches will have the greatest impact on a student’s success, he added. “Even if they have their favorites, we want families to believe that all their children’s teachers are good.”
Building academic excellence “starts with the people you hire and put in the classroom,” echoed Woodman.
“I’m looking for somebody who puts children first, is completely competent, and is qualified to do the work first,” she said. At Christ the King, “we’re a collaborative faculty,” Woodman said. “We want someone who wants to be in that atmosphere.”
JPII looks for teachers who love the kids, have a passion for growing themselves, and have a passion for the subject they teach. “That’s the trinity for the profession,” Deely said. “With that mindset teachers will stay in the profession longer and they’ll like doing it.”
“It’s the teachers who truly make that school great because they care about the students,” Schroeder said of the teachers at St. John Vianney.
Catholic schools work hard to help students at all achievement levels, Hammel said. The diocesan Schools Office is working on helping each school to develop a strong student support team, which would include resource teachers to work one-on-one with struggling students, she said.
“All schools have it in some form already, but the level of support depends on the resources available to each school,” Hammel said.
The goal Catholic schools have for their students is to help “each and every one of them to be what God meant for them to be,” Hammel said. “That means you start where they are and you help them grow.”
Schools rely on support from their boards, parents and parish communities to make sure they have the resources they need to provide a top-rate educational experience, Deely said. If the students’ parents believe in the school’s mission, he said, “they feel it’s worth the investment, knowing kids will be held to a higher standard.”
“At Christ the King especially, we have such support from the whole parish community,” Woodman said. “I feel their pride in the school.”
Because the school is the largest ministry of the parish, Woodman said, “there’s a lot of investment in it.”
Catholic schools’ success flows not only from their academic success. “Catholic identity and commitment to service is embedded in the culture of a Catholic school,” Hammel said.
“All of our schools are asked to ensure each grade level, each class performs a service project each year tied to the social justice teachings of the Church,” Hammel said. “The children realize the world is bigger than themselves and in need, that they can make a difference with their commitment and care for their brothers and sisters.
“That’s a lesson that carries through their life,” she said. As an example she pointed to the recent presentation by the American Cancer Society of the inaugural Pat Flynn Spirit of Relay Award to Father Ryan High School in recognition of the most successful student-run Relay for Life event in the country, which is organized each year by Father Ryan students.
“Those students took that commitment to service and made it their own,” Hammel said.
“We don’t have to go out and look for a canned program to teach kids to be good people,” Woodman said. “The program is our faith, teaching children to be Christ like. … That is our program, it’s Jesus’ program.”
“When you build from that foundation it all comes together,” Woodman said.
“A lot of homeschooling mothers, we’re really worried about what our children are going to be taught,” Schroeder said. At St. John Vianney, “I don’t have to worry about it. The teachers … do a great job teaching the faith.”
One of the issues all Catholic schools face is affordability. The diocese is working on several fronts to make Catholic schools financially accessible for more families.
“The Advancement of Catholic Education foundation is really key to accessibility for students to attend Catholic schools,” Hammel said. ACE funds help provide tuition assistance to families at schools across the diocese.
“We had a successful fundraiser in September, doubling our previous amount of money donated,” Hammel said. “We need to maintain that momentum.”
The diocese also is hopeful the state’s new Education Savings Account program, which will provide Davidson and Shelby County families about $7,100 per year, per student to send their children to a private school, will help make Catholic schools more affordable for more families.
And this year, the diocese financed 56 Welcome Grants, providing tuition assistance to families moving their children to four schools in the diocese: St. John Vianney, St. Pius X Classical Academy, St. Ann School and St. Edward School. The two-year grant provides 50 percent reduction in tuition for the first year and 25 percent reduction in the second year.
“The grant is a wonderful thing, especially for people worried about making that big of an investment,” Schroeder said. “The grant works because once you’re in there, you don’t want to leave. You’ll find a way.”
“I will do whatever it takes,” Schroeder said, “to keep them there.”